For close to a decade, the GOP approached Donald Trump first as a problem that needed to be handled to a nominee who needed to be tolerated to a president who has been able to deliver some political and policy victories to where we are now. Some Republicans bolted early, and even current Republicans will resist him when they think no one is looking. Most did not.
In the main, however, the GOP has passively enabled Trump’s dubious legal efforts to resist Joe Biden’s convincing election win earlier this month. A variety of logics have been proffered for Republican obeisance. For some, this is perceived payback for the errant belief Democrats did the exact same thing in 2016 (they did not). Others in the GOP are desperately concerned about losing both Senate seats in Georgia and think they need Trump in the reservation to win the special elections in January (they may be wrong). Savvier Republicans know that Biden has won but think that Trump’s legal fight can get laughed out of court without too much harm (debatable but not completely insane).
Sometime late last week, however, Trump turned up the temperature in the GOP kettle another couple of degrees. As his legal strategy looks more and more tattered, the president is relying on a more explicit anti-democratic strategy: pressuring GOP state officials and legislatures in states that Biden won to not certify their results. Any delay or uncertainty can be weaponized to delegitimize Biden’s victory and convert Trump into the GOP equivalent of the Lost Cause.
If you think that last paragraph is hyperbole, let me direct you to the media coverage of Trump’s latest escalation of tactics:
- The New York Times’s David Sanger: “President Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election are unprecedented in American history and an even more audacious use of brute political force to gain the White House than when Congress gave Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency during Reconstruction.”
- The Washington Post’s Dan Balz: “Judging by his actions, Trump appears to have a motive other than overturning the election. He is determined to cripple Biden’s presidency even before it becomes official. No defeated president has ever undertaken such an audacious and anti-democratic act.
- The Hill’s Niall Stanage: “The overall picture is one in which a president adamant about clinging to power, despite losing the Electoral College and the popular vote, is flexing every political sinew.”
It should be stressed at this point that Trump’s strategy will not prevent Biden from being sworn in as the 46th president on Jan. 20. Trump’s attempt to jawbone Michigan legislators has failed. His attempt to tweet-shame Georgia officials into not certifying their vote has failed. It will fail in other battleground states, as well. None of his other harebrained Hail Marys will work either.
That is not what matters anymore, however. Trump is behaving exactly how most people, myself included, predicted he would behave if he lost. No, what matters is how the rest of the GOP handles the latest escalation in Trump’s tactics. Will the frogs leave the pot?
Infuriating as it might be to everyone else, the GOP’s support for Trump’s legal actions made crude partisan sense. What Trump is attempting to do now, however, goes way beyond that. Pressuring state GOP officials to take extralegal action crosses one line. His legal team going on television and spinning wild-eyed conspiracy theories without any empirical foundation crosses another.
Over the past week, the trickle of GOP officials calling on Trump to cut it out has grown a bit. As previously noted, multiple state GOP officials have pushed back on his pressure. Leading senators and representatives have announced the obvious: Biden has won and Trump has lost. Organs of the GOP ideological apparatus have begun to break from Trump.
A trickle is not a torrent, however, and that is what needs to happen soon. The Associated Press’s Lisa Mascaro asked GOP senators still in Washington late last week what they thought of all these machinations, and the answers were not comforting. Sen. Josh Hawley said, “I don’t really have concerns with him talking about the situation with elected officials.” When asked whether Trump could overturn the election results, Hawley (Mo.) responded, “Anything’s possible.” Mascaro also noted, "[Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell said once the state certifications occur, ‘if they occur,’ the elections will wrap up.” That “if” is awfully disturbing.
Trump’s post-presidential plans will make life even more difficult for the GOP. He is angling to preserve control over the Republican National Committee once he leaves office and is plotting a prospective 2024 run. He will continue to excoriate GOP officeholders who cotton to the rule of law rather than Trump’s whims. As my Post colleagues note, “Whatever platform he decides to use, Trump plans to seek vengeance against those he believes have betrayed him.”
This week, the key states will certify their election results. Pay attention to whether figures such as McConnell (Ky.) or Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) state the obvious and recognize Biden as the president-elect. If not, the GOP will go from mostly boiled to boiled. Other Republican losers are already embracing Trump’s never-concede posture.
If this becomes the new norm after losing an election, there will not be many free and fair elections left in the American experiment.
Watch Opinions videos: